Lewis County

Buffalo Iron Works

Iron was discovered along the Natchez Trace in present-day Lewis County in the early 1800s.  In 1805, a Mississippi planter, Dr. Rush Nutt, recorded the existence of significant deposits of ore in that locality and predicted a rosy future for the iron industry in the region.  Eleven years later, the Treaty of the Chickasaw Council House provided one of the tribe’s chiefs, John McLish, a tract of land on the Buffalo River.  Soon afterwards, due to financial difficulties, McLish began selling pieces of this parcel to meet his obligations. 

            One of these tracts came into the hands of the partnership of John Jones, David Steele, and Thomas Steele, Columbia businessmen who erected a bloomery forge along the river near the Trace.  It operated under the style of the Steele Iron Works for some years, but was eventually purchased by John Catron. Changing the name to the Buffalo Ironworks, Catron obtained additional landand hired his nephew, Felix A. Catron, to run several operations at this location, including the forge, blacksmith shop, gristmill, and sawmill. 

            John Catron sold the Buffalo Ironworks and associated lands to Felix A. Catron and George F. Napier for $18,000 in 1833, with the understanding that certain improvements would be made to the property.  When state geologist Gerard Troost visited the site in October of that year, he noted that “here the ironworks of Judge Felix Catron will be erected.”  This proposed facility would include a hillside furnace on Chief’s Creek, a new refining forge, and a foundry.  However, the partnership experienced financial difficulties and Napier’s wealthy brother, Dr. Elias W. Napier, assumed  control.

In 1845, Dr. Napier conveyed half of the ironworks to his nephew, William C. Napier.  E.W. Napier died three years later, leaving W.C. Napier as the sole proprietor of the operation.  From then on, the enterprise was referred to as the Napier Furnace.  Run by water power, the cold blast furnace had an output of 36 tons of pig iron per week and the forges produced 35 tons of blooms.  Napier sought to consolidate his holdings in the mid-1850s and put the Buffalo Iron Works and lands up for sale.  When no buyers appeared, he continued operations until the Civil War began.

In December 1867 losses incurred as a result of the conflict forced Napier to file for bankruptcy.  At some point the furnace was rebuilt and put into blast again and the forge refitted.  In 1873 Napier leased the facility to Ward, Rains, and Co., who made iron intermittently there for the next seventeen years.

After Napier died in 1890, new owners took over and built a much large furnace stack, had a branch railroad line run to the site, and eventually converted the charcoal operation into one using coke.  By 1912, production had increased to over 100 tons per day.  The raw material obtained locally was supplemented by additional ore that was shipped in by rail from mines in southwestern Lawrence County and southeastern Wayne County.  The operation on the Buffalo River prospered during World War I, but adverse postwar economic conditions forced the furnace to close for good in 1923.  The facility was dismantled for salvage materials in 1930.

 

Napier Mines

The Napier Mines are located in the southeastern part of Lewis County a mile or so north of the almost deserted village of Napier on the high ground that separates the Buffalo River from Chief Creek and the smaller watercourses.  The main iron ore deposits were situated in the high ridges above the Buffalo River, parts of which are nine hundred feet above sea level and more than 100 feet above the creek. 

This raw material occurred in various size pockets surrounded by a loose mixture of red clay, chert gravel, and sand.  In some places the overburden was only a few feet in thickness; in others it was fifteen feet or more.  No large embedded rocks were found in association with the ore except at the base of the deposits.  Much of the ore was found underneath heavy cover, where no trace showed at the surface, although some outcroppings occurred at the head of gullies or along streams. 

The hardworking miners produced a high quality, low phosphorus dark brown limonite used to manufacture pig iron at the Buffalo Iron Works.  The desirable material was dug out by hand with pick and shovel and transported to the furnace in wagons pulled by oxen and mules until after the Civil War.  As time went on, various mechanized devices replaced much of the manual labor in the different phases of the manufacturing process.  Employing this new machinery served to greatly increase the efficiency and overall production at the furnace in the late 1900s.  A railroad spur of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad reached the industrial facility in the early twentieth century and by 1912 the coke-fired operation was producing over one hundred tons of pig iron per day.  By then the output of the Napier mines was insufficient to supply the necessary quantities of ore, so additional shipments were brought in by rail from the Pinkney area in southwestern Lawrence County and southeastern Wayne County. 

The World War I years proved to be the last period of prosperity for the Napier Ironworks and the furnace went out of blast in 1923.  Today, the large open pit of the Napier Mine can be viewed from a rest area located on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Although uncounted tons of ore have been removed from this locality since Dr. Nutt first laid eyes on the rich deposits, much more still remains untouched.


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